A/n: Today marks the first day of Tokka Week! I've been slowly working on this story for over a year now, and there are SO MANY things that I could say, but mostly I just never want to look at this story again. HAH!
In case you live under a rock, the new series called The Legend of Korra will be released in 2012. According to those involved, everyone from the original series has passed away... which I refuse to believe for now. But I did my best to weave TLOK's canon into a story that charts the final years of Toph and Sokka's lives. The time line may be a little wonky, but a lot of is was guesswork so bear with me!
Note: After the revealing of Toph's daughter's name, I went ahead and changed it so I wouldn't have to think about how wrong it is. xD
Anyway, if you're reading this, thank you for sticking with me through all these years. I can't tell you how much it means to me. YOU, dear reader, are the only reason why I struggled through this text.
Finally, a very special thank you to Snowy, Liv, and Izzy, who put up with my incessant harping about this story and whose notes have improved it tenfold.
Disclaimer: I own nothing and make no profit.
Happy Reading, and Happy Tokka Week!
"Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand,
and the sound of a voice that is still."
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Toph had considered, more than once, that she might get to witness the end of the world. Both the histories of her family and of her nation suggest longevity, and once all life's more dangerous stages had passed—namely war, marriage, childbirth, and babysitting—she began to prepare for her retirement, comfortable with the knowledge that she'd made it through the worst. The only remaining problem was that she was trapped in transition.
A new violence had arisen, a civil war spanning among and within the four nations. Benders versus NonBenders, neighbors against neighbors. This change meant the beginning of a new age, and with it, the conclusion of the old. Toph tried at first to find some footing in this new order of things, and instead discovered three troubling facts:
For one, the world doesn't seem to need her. Even in the peak days of the Great War, she had never been one for "planning". Preferring to be out in the field, she dreaded long-winded meetings when she could be out cracking skulls and taunting the opposition. This new war… it's nothing that she could have imagined. It's a war of tactics and stealth, where old ladies have no place amidst the youth. She is always welcome into conversation, of course, and often forces herself to jog alongside the young and energetic minds, but the philosophy has changed.
As her daughter, Lin, tried to explain, it wouldn't help for Toph to rile up the Benders and knock everyone around with her legendary talent. When the argument stems from issues with Bending and equal rights, being talented means you are more the root of the problem, not a means of solution.
She's fallen behind on the technology of the times. Her knowledge of ground combat—sneakiest strategies included—has become relatively useless against the barrage of new weaponry. As far as information applies, she's about twenty years outdated. If confronted with the new generation's challenges, she grudgingly acknowledges that she would make a mess of things. She's lost enough during her own years of service. The prospect of losing more lives to her fumbling tactics is just as unappealing as the idea of attending another war meeting.
Second, despite her refusal to admit it, she is getting old. As if her astonishment at this truth did not say enough, Toph sought to disprove time's perfected technique. She protested adamantly against the changes that had begun to take hold within her. There were dull pains and moments of weakness that threatened her ability to function on her own. The more she tried to justify her individuality, however, the more she began to realize the truth in her fears. Her body reminded her as often as possible that she had become an ancient relic.
Some mornings it hurt to climb out of bed. The more her body complained, the more she defied it, standing in her back yard and repeating Bending forms until her joints ached and she could not maintain her horse stance without losing her breath. She was rewarded for her efforts with illness and agony. She simply couldn't understand how she, at eighty-three, could be failing so readily when King Bumi lived to be over a hundred. It wasn't fair, that after all she had done to raise the world back up, it would pull her down and make her grovel for the most basic of life's joys.
Finally—and this struck her more profoundly than the other issues combined—she had not one person from her youth with whom to chart the changing tides. One morning, not so long after her husband died, it occurred to Toph that she was the last one in this city who had been there. She had felt the earth trembling in shock under siege. She had witnessed the earth aflame, and with her remained all the memories of the war. And though her daughter came to call often enough, she still felt her knees buckle under the weight of the revelation—that she, who had spent her entire life resisting isolation and alienation from society, had not one person left from the days of triumph and playing in the dirt.
Those she knew and loved were across seas and long stretches of land, ruling nations and maintaining balance just fine without her. Toph had buried her husband twelve winters previous. Aang and Katara had long since passed, one following the other as if their bodies were as synchronized as their hearts. Zuko was enjoying his extended retirement alongside Mai, offering advice to the newest Fire Lord from the cozy sidelines. The last she heard, Sokka was content in the South Pole despite the loss of his beloved Suki almost seven years ago. Of course, any of these people would be honored to house her. But reminiscing only does so much to warm the old soul, and these people had better things to do than entertain an old friend. They had grandchildren and responsibilities, had been through too much for her to burden them with more work.
Should she uproot her established life to join the last of her remaining friends, she would be more of a hindrance than a helper. Upon returning home, disappointed by what she saw overseas, she would discover that her family resented her for leaving in the first place, for not thinking them 'good enough'. Torn between the past and present, Toph could move in neither direction without losing some aspect of herself. So she stayed in limbo. Paralyzed.
Toph had accepted that she might live to witness the end of the world—her universe, as she had grown up and into it, as she had shaped it. What frightened her was that she would have to do it alone. When her world flickered into history and the new era emerged, she might be the only one left in the Earth Kingdom to bridge the generations.
Lin and her husband lived in Republic City. She was the chief of police, the leader of an elite squad of Metalbenders whom Toph had trained in their youth to be strong and steadfast. Lin implored Toph to pack up and move in with her and her family, to leave this house to rest with all its memories and choose security over pride. In Republic City, Toph could be closer to the conflict that so enticed her. That way, neither party would have to worry about Toph getting into trouble on her own. Falling and breaking a hip. Accidentally setting fire to the house while trying to cook for herself. These concerns were… embarrassing.
"Be reasonable, Mom," Lin said to her scowling mother.
Lin's visits had become annoyingly frequent over the last few months. Generally Toph liked spending time with her family, but she became annoyed when she discovered that Lin only ever wanted to talk about Toph moving out of the city. She would stop by Ba Sing Se's police headquarters to legitimize her presence, then stomp around Toph's house in full armor and boots, complaining loudly about the state of Toph's health and how the dishes from last time were still in the wash bin.
"You're getting too old to live here by yourself. If dad were still here, it would be different. But he's not. I live too far away to check up on you every day, and if you got sick, who would be here to help?"
"King Bumi never had to move in with his kid," Toph said.
Lin was lean like her mother, but about two heads taller and far more experienced in the conflict between the Benders and Equalists. Toph had felt the sharp angle of her daughter's face and could read her expressions on voice alone, yet she was always impressed at how well Lin's attitude could translate so well from no-nonsense officer to desperate daughter. The presence or lack of armor made little difference. If Toph refused to budge, Lin insisted even more.
At her mother's refusal, Lin set her tea down with enough force so that it sloshed all over her hand.
"First of all, King Bumi had no children to move in with. And regardless, King Bumi didn't abuse his body by jumping off cliffs and leading battles against the Fire Nation, did he? It's no wonder your bones are weak."
"This is my home, Lin. I've been here for the last thirty years, and I'm not leaving it now."
"Well you can't live here by yourself."
"I don't care."
Toph objected over and over, despite the merit to her daughter's concerns. Leaving home meant leaving her independence and admitting defeat against old age, and she would not have it. Surrender meant becoming the fragile little girl her parents had always wanted—a delicate petal that must be protected from harm that may or may not come. Still, Lin continued to pressure her mother. Toph resisted just as fiercely. Both parties became frustrated almost to the point of hostility.
Then, on an otherwise unremarkable spring morning, the answer strode up the walkway to her house and knocked on the door.
The day that Sokka showed up at her front step, Toph had been fuming over one of the usual arguments with Lin. Sokka, ever perceptive to her sentiments, had only just released her from a leopard-bear hug when he observed, "Something's wrong. Did I choose a bad day to stop by?"
"Are you kidding me? It's been way too long, Sokka. Feeling your footsteps on my front walk was the most thrilling thing that's happened since we got kicked out of that bar in Republic City."
"Wow, you must not get out much."
"Tell me about it."
Toph learned that Sokka was returning from one last trip to the Northern Water Tribe before retirement, traveling on a merchant ship with some Water Tribe friends and one of his sons.
After assuring him that he had nothing to do with her stress, she explained her latest troubles with Lin. Sokka had met Lin on many occasions and gotten along well with her, swapping stories and comparing armor. To hear that the women had come to a standstill did not surprise him.
Once Toph had finished her story and the expected pause settled on the pair, Sokka "hmm"-ed and scratched his chin. She felt his weight shift from has bad leg to his good one. Toph realized with a surge of guilt that she probably should have at least invited him inside before dumping her tragic life story on his shoulders. He, however, seemed to think little of her less-than-hospitable welcome.
"You have that spare room, right?"
"Yeah," she answered, leaning against the doorframe with her arms folded across her chest. "What of it?"
He paused like he had expected her to accept his hint without question, and when she didn't seem to get it clarified, "Well, if you could use a little company and support while you're arguing with Lin, I could always… stay for a while—I mean, if you want me to."
"A while? Pfft." She blew her graying hair away from her eyes with a small puff of breath. "How about forever?"
With her half-serious comment came an implication that was both unintentional and very, very serious in nature. Here stood Sokka, who had stopped by for a few day's visit—who hadn't even gotten past her front porch—and she had already begun to ask him for favors. Sokka had a family, even without Suki. For her to even suggest that he uproot himself was selfish beyond—
Sokka shouldered the one bag that he had brought with him on his trip, tightened the weapon holster around his waist, and crossed the threshold into Toph's house with two decisive steps.
That same day, he sent a messenger hawk to the South Pole to let his children and grandchildren know that he had finally found a nice, warm place to retire with an old friend. Contrary to Toph's most optimistic expectations, which entailed a dreadful family feud that ended with sore feelings all around, they soon after received an enthusiastic response from his family. When Sokka opened the tube fastened to the messenger hawk's back, he withdrew a tightly rolled stack of letters—one from each relative, wishing him the best in his settlement and promising to visit as soon as they could. The smallest of the children had included a drawing that Sokka described to Toph as "a lumpier version of me, though I think he was going for muscular."
"He must have gotten his drawing skills from you," she said, smiling at the gesture and feeling guilty all the same. Later, when she approached him to apologize for tearing him from his family, he dismissed her concern with the reassurance that it was what he wanted, and that was the end of it.
Lin burst into tears at the news and assaulted Sokka with an embrace strong enough to knock him over. After the details had been arranged, she visited once a month and only ever had nice things to say. For Toph, that was perhaps the greatest relief of all.
Since those first few weeks, the pair has become proficient at their daily routine. Toph rises early and prepares for them both a cold breakfast, which they eat together when Sokka finally drags himself out from under the covers of the guest bed. Once they've washed and dressed, they meander out to the stone front porch. They deposit themselves into their rocking chairs and remain there for the rest of the day, unless something more interesting entices them to rise. As far as "retirement" goes for two veterans, their situation is ideal.
Toph has always hated Ba Sing Se, but sitting at the axis of the information center outweighs any disdain that she might feel for the big city. Despite their regular attendance at Board of Generals meetings, the past has told them that unofficial news can be even more revealing than the official. Thus, they regularly intercept the postman on his way to the palace. The "working relationship" that they've developed with him involves prying information out of him in any way possible, which sometimes means that Toph has to put walls up around him and not let him continue on his route unless he discloses everything he knows about the war's development. After several mornings where the postman was left in a tall square of Earthbended walls for over an hour, he eventually promised to give them a special report each morning in exchange for a harassment-free journey. Things have a way of working out.
In the months since Sokka's would-be stopover, the number of visitors to the house has steadily declined. When word first got out that Sokka had moved into the city, the pair had to deal with large groups of rookie soldiers that flocked to the house. They'd come in packs, begging for lessons from the legendary sword-master and refusing to take "retirement" as a suitable reason for rejection. At first the pair made an effort at politeness—well, at least Sokka made an effort—but as the numbers grew, they eventually resorted to pretending that they were either deaf or losing their minds (or sometimes both). Sokka would cup a hand around his ear and shout, "Eh? Speak up, boy!" while Toph slouched over and drooled into her lap. Eventually the suitors would become so embarrassed that they just turned and left the property without another word, their swords clanking uselessly at their sides.
The guests dropped off as they realized that they were unwanted, dwindling down to the barest minimum. Once every few weeks, different young men and women would arrive armed with curious questions rather than weapons and boastful stories. These people Sokka would invite to sit across his hand-carved Pai Sho table; if they had heard of his honored position as a Grand Lotus, they would have to win the confirmation and its benefits.
They never did, and slowly the number of potential pupils ("Little Lotus Blossoms" Toph calls them) began to wane as well. Soon, to Sokka's unspoken disappointment, the only visitors they expect are close family and friends.
Toph's tiny family boasts Lin, Lin's husband, and Lin's son. Sokka sees his family only once or so a year, but when his three children, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren stay over for a few days, the house brims with a sort of life that Toph has grown to envy. She can feel their little feet running about in the yard as they play, relishing in the freedom that warm weather bade them—the shoes and parkas are abandoned. They pretend to have warrior battles in the grass. The first time Toph meets Sokka's oldest daughter, she is sure that she hears Suki's voice instead of a stranger's. And isn't that the strangest sensation? She tries to justify her own selfishness, blaming Sokka for pushing every time she pulls. But once his family is out the door and disappearing down the street, she bows her head.
"You don't have to stay," she says. "Really, Sokka. That's your family. I don't want to come between you and your family."
He pauses in waving to the disappearing group of footsteps to drape an arm around her shoulders.
"I love them, but honestly? Living in the South Pole after retirement was too much like being stuck in the past… a really icy, cold past. And besides, you're my family, too."
"They're blood, though."
"Personally, I don't see a difference."
Toph lets her head fall into the crook of his shoulder and grumbles, "The past is a good place to be. And it's not like you're escaping it any better by being here. Ba Sing Se is where it all came together, isn't it? The war, the Dai Li, the Earth King. Azula and the Catacombs…?"
"I'm not trying to escape from it. Our pasts are everything that we are, everything we represent. I'm here because I want to be, not because you need me—I need you just as much, you know," Sokka says, and there's a hint of ice in his voice, a surge beneath the words that breathes the same as he does.
Sokka is warm, but he is just as much ice as she is earth. It's the part that doesn't give to teasing or loss, the gruff and guarded response to prying questions. Just as she is rocklike in her beliefs, he flows and changes like water. She feels his heart thrum against his chest and imagines that the slow and steady beat is security. If nothing else, it keeps the fear at bay.
Toph has never known the worth of a day until it moves too quickly to grasp. Even at the height of the war, her younger self was too caught up in the excitement of things to understand that they might not make it to the end—she had been brave, and her bravery a result of being young and twelve and brilliant and in love. Now, with each moment panning out long and each week falling shorter, she knows what it means to wait. On a good day, in the pleasant time of year before the frost chases them indoors, Sokka will shoulder his sword and take up his cane. Together they head at a sluggish pace into the Middle Ring.
As much as Toph dislikes visiting the Board of Generals, they attend in order to keep their brains from pouring out their ears. If nothing else, it serves as a reassurance that their honor remains unquestionable—the doorman bows them into the palace, where the generals rise until Toph and Sokka have taken their seats at the long table. Their shoulders are stiff, however. The conversation flows well until they reach Republic City and the inter-racial skirmishes, at which point Toph slumps back in her seat and wishes she could leave.
This is not their world. They give their best opinions and advice, but she leaves unsatisfied and with Sokka trailing at her side, lethargic. Sokka tries to be optimistic. She appreciates his positive attitude, but his hand on her shoulder speaks what he tries to conceal.
"They want to hear us, right?" he says.
"They would, if I had anything to say."
Toph slows and stops just outside the Jasmine Dragon. There are kids playing in the lot next door. She can hear them shouting over a game of rockball; all six children are Benders. Inside the teashop, a couple is sitting down to lunch, and the waitress has spilled a pot of ginseng tea across the floor.
"Iroh was smart to quit while he could still stand it," she says. "He could have kicked around until he had nothing to say, too. But he moved across the world and worked in a teashop instead." Toph pauses to hear his response, but he says nothing. "I don't think I can do this anymore."
Sokka chuckles. "I'm already across the world."
"Did you come here to listen to soldiers talk about decent people trying to kill each other?"
"No," he says, "but it doesn't sound real when I hear it. They go through the list of problems and I don't have a single answer."
"So we are useless." She drops her chin at the affirmation.
"I'm not sure that's fair, Toph. It's just the natural order of things; soldiers cycle in and out with the times, and it's a new tide." He takes up her hand, smoothes his thumbs over her knuckles with a gentle pressure to wipe out the knots, and drops it again. The gesture is absent, but somehow he's always known when she needs it. "We're not useless, we're just… extremely retired. Can you live with that?"
"I don't know," she sighs, "but it's better than the alternative."
At length they begin to walk again, leading away from the town hall toward the market.
They salvage the remnants of the day, ambling around the city square with arms linked to keep their gaits in line. They watch the other citizens running about in a hurry, make small talk with the shopkeepers that they've come to know over the months, and make dinner plans that they may or may not keep. They find a bench in the center of town and laugh when Toph covertly trip a cocky-looking man who was harassing a woman into going on a date. The air tastes clean and sweet, and Toph never cared for the City of Walls and Secrets and its busy rumbling as she does on this day.
A year is gone, and despite their agreement to never attend another meeting, Toph and Sokka still try to keep informed. The pair begins to piece together the fragmented information that they coerce from the postman. Things are not going well in Republic City, the apparent centerpiece of the chaos. The more they hear about the rising violence and the new Avatar's failed attempts to stifle it, the more Toph finds herself shifting into silence. Sokka paces the length of the back yard with his fingers twisted together while Toph sits on the ground and uproots fistfuls of grass. Having both come from the Southern Water Tribe, the Avatar and Sokka have met on many occasions. His testimony does not offer any comfort.
"Korra is a good kid," he mutters, shaking his head as he walks. The constant motion is beginning to make Toph dizzy. "She's not like Aang, though. It's not the same as it was back then. We weren't any more prepared, but Aang was quicker. He was, well…"
"Aang," Toph concludes, and Sokka's feet slow and cease before her.
She feels the dust beginning to settle around his ankles, watches him shift from good leg to bad and back to good again. When he nods and shrugs, she opens her hand and lets the grass fall from her palm.
They do not spend much time talking about their past, joyful as it was. They do not often mention their spouses, and when they do it's only to recall some glimmering moment. The ones that float the highest, seem furthest out of reach. Sokka describes Suki with the same affection she had felt—and still feels, to a degree—for her own husband. She is far more guarded with her emotions than he, though. Her reflection upon Suki and Sokka is with none of the background noise of her teenage days. She had been jealous, albeit never vocally, in those first few years. Now, on those rare instances when he delves into his memory, she nods and massages her aching knees with the heels of her hands and understands every word he says.
But they try not to hang on to the years after the war, when eighty seemed so promising. They had moved apart and lived their lives and loved and lost and that was it. The end. Easy as conversation moves between them, she knows that it saddens them both to linger.
They had not, after all, ever dreamed of a day when they would be here to witness the new Avatar's regime.
The months swirl around them like water, so fluid that Toph wonders if they were made to live in such a way, if all things could move as easily as they do together. They become Toph and Sokka, Sokka and Toph. Two old-time heroes in the central hub of information with no say in the future.
The world is moving, leaving them behind just as she feared it would. They are alienated witnesses to the revolution, and sometimes their frustration feeds off of the other's, building until they launch into a full-blown panic. Sokka keeps his sword within arm's reach at all times. Sometimes, when they're sitting out front beneath the summer sun, he reaches under his rocking chair and runs his hand over the blade. Partly she thinks that the gesture is one of affection. He is lost in the tumult of battle and waiting for the newest challenge to arise. Mostly, though, he's making sure that it's still there. That it wasn't all a dream.
Sometimes it gets to them both. Usually it gets to Sokka first.
"We shouldn't be so useless," he says to her at breakfast one morning, in direct conflict with his usual mantra of 'extremely retired'. "I mean, there must be something we can do… I invented half of the tools they're using to fight, didn't I?"
Toph nods between bites of food, letting him start with it because she knows that he can fire them both up and she could use a little energy.
"Look at Zuko! He's just as old as us, and he's the only one still who's doing anything worth a damn. Here we are, in the biggest city in the world, and we're just waiting. It makes me sick."
"Yeah, well, we must have done something wrong, Sokka," she replies. "My bones and joints have had it, and you can barely walk on that leg. Not to mention that they have all that newfangled technology. It's different now. We don't belong in it."
"I heard the Equalists have this instrument that shoots a rock out so fast it could kill a man instantly," Sokka says, his voice a mixture of awe and horror.
"Exactly my point. This is being fought with weapons that we can't even imagine—even if we weren't ancient relics, there's no place for us in all of that. Much as I hate to say it, they're not looking for us to be old fashioned. Battles aren't fought in open fields anymore."
Sokka rises from the table so fast that Toph almost turns her bowl over. He snatches up his sword.
"You know what? I don't want to hear it, Toph. We need to get back into shape and do something before lose my mind."
Grinning at the change of pace, Toph abandons her breakfast to follow Sokka outside.
The back yard is a sloping lawn, protected from nosy neighbors by a fence of tall bushes. There's the skeleton of what once was a flower pit in the corner where the house meets the hedge, neglected for so long that it has wilted into a patch of weeds. Down a few yards from the house is a dry patch of land, where the grass has been destroyed and repaired with years of practice. This is Toph's dojo, her favorite part of the entire property. Sometimes, she creeps down to it in the middle of the night. She throws her fist into the air and imagines the Earth Rumble crowd cheering around her. The sound pushing in from all sides, the opponent lying on his face, the weight of the belt on her hips.
In the stillness of the private yard, Toph shrugs out of her coat and tosses it aside. Across from her, Sokka is stepping out of his shoes and nudging them away.
Toph draws the ball of one foot in a long, slow circle against the earth before planting her heel down and falling into a horse stance. She soaks it up from the ground, this energy, seeping from her foot and coursing into her bones. It's in the depth of her breath, the pop that echoes through the yard as she straightens out her pose and cracks her neck. It's in the quirk of a smile that turns in the thinnest corner of her mouth.
She clenches her fingers and lets the morning settle around her. Every time she moves is the first time. If she cocked her head to the side and listened, she would hear Momo's wings beating through the air. Appa's low, mournful rumble. Aang and Katara's playful laughter mingling in with a rushing brook. Sokka complaining with his boomerang strapped securely to his back. Sokka standing before her now, weighing the sword in his hand. His steps are clumsy beneath her feet—they always have been, whether he was stomping about or sparring with her in a clearing. But his heavy footfalls entail decisiveness, too, and sturdiness where there is no grace. Sokka moves, and the earth trembles.
Each knows the other's fighting style so intimately that fighting often feels more like dancing. Sokka's a good partner, ever-attentive to her needs. He knows that she never makes the first move if she can help it. When she realizes that he is waiting, Toph grins. She dips her shoulder and feints an attack, and Sokka reacts accordingly. He leaps forward, poised for an attack, only to slip when she stops mid-motion to pull the ground out from under him. The satisfying squawk of surprise that accompanies the solid thump of a body hitting the ground tells her that she's made her mark.
"Come on you old fogey, you can't tell me you didn't see that one coming," she says, stepping back to appraise him as he scrambles to his feet. He is already panting.
"I'm just getting warmed up," he insists, and attacks a second time.
This round takes longer than the first (and is far less humiliating on Sokka's part). In normal combat she would never let her opponent get so close, but what would be the point of sparring if she just encased him in a block of dirt? When she gives him a chance, Sokka exceeds her expectations in every way. Toph had anticipated him to evade around the obstacles she shoots up from the ground, so her eyebrows rise when instead he passes straight through them. He sidesteps the first pillar, then narrowly manages to hope over a knee-high hurdle, then dodges two more until he's almost within a hit's reach. Startled by his sudden burst of agility, she throws her arms up in front of her face, pulling with it a slab of rock. Sokka sidesteps it. When he finally reaches her, she sends herself soaring away from him, to land with what appears to be ease even though her bones scream on contact. But Sokka is back at her before she can recover, and smashes to bits the rock she propels at his head. Three steps later, and the flat edge of his blade is on her neck.
"I guess I'm not the only rusty one," he says, then offers his hand. "Good round."
The first sign of fatigue hits Toph as she reaches out to accept the gesture. She grabs his upper arm, slides her fingers up almost to his elbow, and holds it in the customary Water Tribe shake. The breath that escapes her does so all in a rush, a clear sign of the underlying tiredness. The moment she allows that first breath to shake her, her brain spins as if with drink—it's been so long since she was properly drunk that she almost panics at its presence—and Sokka, who feels her grip tighten on his arm, drops his sword to steady her.
"Whoa, Toph, hang on—are you all right?"
She is dimly aware that her eyes are shut tight with the force of fighting dizziness and the horrible ache in her joints, but the concern in his voice clears the hum in her ears as fast as it arrived. It fuels the self-directed anger that got them outside in the first place. Toph slaps his hand away from her shoulder and shakes her head to stop the spinning.
"I'm fine," she spits, stepping back and raising her arms in her best fighting stance. "I want you to hit me as hard as you can."
She feels his feet actually leave the ground as he starts in surprise. "What? No!"
"Listen, Sokka, if we want to be a part of this new war, we need to be more like them. You said it yourself—they don't want the Benders to help because we only make the Equalists angrier."
"Yeah, but—" Sokka begins, reluctantly, but she cuts him off.
"Toss the weapon and fight me. Then we'll see who's the stronger of us!"
But Sokka doesn't move. She bounces on the balls of her feet, makes a mocking jab at him, and gives him her nastiest look when he just steps out of the way. Sokka just shakes his head and says, "I'm not going to hit you."
"Because—well, because you're old and frail and—ow!"
He recoils from the force of her fist against his shoulder, and when he straightens up again—grunting in pain, rubbing the spot where a bruise has probably begun to form—Toph is smiling. She'd hurt him, but the contact had felt… good.
"Come on," she urges him, almost sing-song. Almost teasing, like she's fifteen and mocking his masculinity. "Hit me back or I'm going to beat you into next week."
"All right, all right!"
Toph waits until Sokka shifts back into position, he mumbling about how she hits just fine and doesn't need the practice. She feels only a little silly as she wonders what an outside viewer might think of them. The extent of her hand-to-hand combat reaches about as far as the arm wrestling tournament in their favorite Fire Nation bar, the Cranky Dragon. Otherwise, aside from the occasional brawl (which she has not experienced in too many years to count) it serves her no purpose. It's not about the practice anymore, she wants to say. It's about tricking themselves into thinking that they've set something in motion, something worthy of the past's attention and the unkind present. Fate grants little mercy upon the unprepared. They both know this.
Earthbending is so much a part of her that her body reacts to the motions like a machine—a rusty one, but one that creaks to life upon request. The same does not apply to regular fighting, not anymore. With her weight shifted the wrong way and her fists up, her joints complain that they have no idea how to respond.
Sokka's first blow catches her off guard, and Toph has to duck under his arm to keep his fist from knocking her jaw off its hinge. She manages to get one well-aimed hit at his solar plexus before he's got her hands on her face. A strangled shout splits the morning air as Sokka presses her cheeks between his palms and shoves her backward to the dirt. She scrambles to sit up, wincing even though she'd cushioned the fall with Earthbending. She can hear is breaths coming in short gasps, more effortful with each… laugh?
As she tries to glare at him and lands her gaze somewhere over his left shoulder, she realizes that he's bent over double, wheeze-laughing as he tries to recover from her well-placed hit.
"What?" she demands hotly.
Sokka attempts to straighten up but fails. "Y-your form is terrible," he manages.
"Mine!" Grabbing a fistful of dirt and chucking it harmlessly at his head, Toph cries, "You pushed me over by my face, you meathead."
All she gets in response is more howling laughter—strained, but genuine. Despite being red-faced with embarrassment at having been beaten so quickly, the sound washes over and leaves her smiling, too. Toph clambers to her feet, pauses to shake the cramp out of her arms, and perches her hands on her hips.
"Rematch," she says.
Sokka's laughing ceases at once. She half expects to hear him decline, and is more than a little taken aback when he shifts back into his fighting pose.
"Okay," chuckles Sokka, smudging a tear with his thumb. "Let's do this."
Rather than have her behind handed to her again, she waits in a more Toph-ly fashion. The move foot-over-foot in a semicircle around each other, wearing down what remains of the wilted grass as they pace. She puts herself back in time, until she can taste ash when she licks her lips. How strange it feels, to return to the past with such ease, fueled by the syncopation of his and her steps. When Sokka strikes, this time she's ready. She blocks the first, dodges the second, and leaps back when he tries to kick in her ankles. Sokka gives a snort at her tactics.
"Come on Toph, are we fighting or not?"
"Shut up, I'm playing defense."
"How's that supposed to help?"
"Aang always did that," Toph explains. "He could knock you over without ever touching you."
Sokka makes a skeptical noise. "That's Airbender stuff, Toph. Tenzin does it too, we've seen him. I don't think it applies to us—what the—?"
With his explanation comes the exact distraction she'd been waiting for. If she can just get a hand on him, she can knock him down—she has always been the stronger of the two, always the one to land the punch when it mattered. Forty or so years should make no difference. Toph sends a fist hurdling toward Sokka's jaw, stance solid, form not as terrible as Sokka had claimed. A moment later, he catches her first in his hand and bursts into another fit of laughter when she puts her shoulder into it and tries to push him over. Annoyed, she pushes again and he holds fast, enough so that she has to dig in to keep from winding up on her face.
"Nice try, but it's not about brute strength—you're too predictable without your Earthbending, Toph," he says, arms shaking from holding her at bay. "You've got the agility, but you need to work on surprise."
"Surprise?" she grunts.
"Okay, then how about this?"
There's a sharp yelp in her ear as she shifts her weight and stomps down on Sokka's foot. He lets her go to hop on one foot, at which point he realizes that he's hopping on his bad leg and stumbles back. And in all of the chaos that follows, she grabs him around the waist and tackles him to the ground.
The duel turns quickly to an almost bar-like scuffle, a tangle of flying limbs and strangled shouts. Within seconds she's pinned his face to the ground, and as she rubs his head into the dirt his surprised protests fold into a belly laugh so deep that she feels it swim right up her arms and into her own chest.
"Okay, you win!" he cries, voice strained and thick in her ear, still trying to wrestle her hands away from his face. "Get off me before you break one of us."
Toph pauses, then relents. He's still chuckling between heavy breaths when she rolls off of him and flops backward. She can feel the adrenaline—that sweet spark, those few moments of powerful mobility—already beginning to ebb from her system. Come morning time, she knows, she will wish she hadn't so much as stamped her foot. She doesn't care. All through these minutes while they lay together on the ground, gasping and beside themselves with exhaustion, they might have just turned twenty.
Her body's retribution doesn't strike until the next morning. For one horrible moment, when Toph is still in the hazy stretch between sleep and waking, she thinks she might be paralyzed. She hears Sokka's call for her drift down from the kitchen, but when she tries to move, she finds that she can barely lift an arm. It's a sensation beyond stiffness—it's joint pain plus fatigue so fierce that Toph doesn't even try to sit up when she senses Sokka approaching. And indeed, when he nudges the door open and crosses the threshold into her room, he finds her spread-eagled and disheveled beneath the sheets. Her blind eyes are glassy and half-lidded when he says her name a second time.
She grunts in response. Sokka breathes a sigh of relief, as if he had expected to find her dead. He limps heavily across the room to set a breakfast tray on a nearby table, then collapses on to the bed.
"I think," he says, weighty with irony, "that was probably a bad idea."
It takes all of her energy to shift over and make room for him, but she does it. "I think my whole body is swollen," she answers.
"I can barely walk," Sokka affirms. "Can we just stay in bed for the rest of the day?"
"I don't think we have a choice. I can't move."
"Let's hope Lin doesn't stop by today—she'll flay us both alive."
Toph gives a snort of laughter, somehow in high spirits despite the loss of function in her limbs.
"We need to find a new hobby," she says. "Maybe… gardening?"
The bed begins to shake with the joint force of their laughter. Soon enough she is caught between a giggle and a groan, clutching her aching sides while Sokka does his best not to laugh at her (he fails). Only once they tire themselves out, like children who cry and scream until they're too drained to cry any more, can they catch their breath long enough to speak. Sokka heaves himself into a sitting position and helps her do the same before he reaches over for the breakfast tray. He folds a cup of tea into her hands, still chuckling, and shakes his head in an amused sort of way as he says, "I love you, Toph. So much."
There are tears running down her face, but she ignores them. Instead she smiles into the brim of her teacup and answers, "I love you too, Sokka."
"I believe that if I should die, and you were to walk near my grave, from the very depths of the earth I would hear your footsteps." - Benito Perez Galdos
The consequences of sparring are enough to curb their enthusiasm for joining the movement, at least for now. Lin does happen to stop by the morning after they spend the whole day lying in bed, and nearly has a conniption when she discovers that neither Toph nor Sokka can walk without grabbing on to nearby furniture. The pair tries to dismiss her lecture, hobbling around the house and talking in loud voices as if they cannot hear her, but the message hits home—Lin, with her hands on her hips and a reprimand sharp on her tongue, reminds them so much of Katara that they are startled into attention. By the time she leaves, they've resigned themselves to never leaving the front porch again.
"Maybe a garden is a good idea," says Sokka.
Toph hasn't got the attention span for gardening, but Sokka sure won't be able to do it on his own. He may be able to cook, but he is also more apt to picking out half-rotten vegetables than not. She's the one who can tell a good mango from a bad, who picks up the piece of produce from the cart downtown and squeezes it, just like Katara taught her. Beans should snap easily, stalks of celery should not fall apart from the whole, and the perfect mango will have just the right scent about it. To the Water Tribe warrior, any potato is as good as the next.
Nevertheless, she still finds herself picking up a few handfuls of seeds when they go to market, and she trudges out into the back yard with Sokka that same day. With a few Bending motions, she clears away the tangled mess that once was a flower pit and leaves for him a fresh-tossed vegetable patch. Sorting and planting the seeds proves a good way to keep busy, and though Toph initially mocks him for the idea, she winds up enjoying it. It's close to the earth and close to Sokka.
She takes solace in that which kept her sane through most of her childhood. It is here, tearing weeds up by the fistful while Sokka whistles along beside her, where she feels safest. When the fear of remoteness begins to rise within her chest, she sinks down to the grass and runs her hand along the budding plants. She leans close and breathes it all in, the smell of the unrefined. The Earth, her sister for all time, ages as she has aged, never breaking. She can feel the power coursing through her entire body, and though she has always struggled against growing old, she comforts herself with the thought that the Earth will never fall beneath her feet. It is here, tangible beneath her fingernails and in between her toes.
In addition to being rather therapeutic, the garden eventually yields enough fresh produce to keep them from venturing into market more than they like. Fortunately, somewhere between their twenties and now, Sokka became an adept chef. This she blames on Suki's never-ending battle against sexism in any form and the ensuing demand that Sokka be just as good at allegedly "womanly" tasks as Suki was at "manly" ones. More than once since Sokka's re-entry into her life, Toph has silently thanked Suki for Sokka's latent talent. Dinner is delicious and cheap, and she's found it hard to go to sleep in a foul mood if she's been properly fed. Granted, her appetite is not what it used to be. On the ship's journey from the Fire Nation after the war, she and Sokka had passed time by stuffing their faces as often as possible (much to the chagrin of Suki, Katara, and the kitchen staff). Toph remembers vividly the two of them lounging across sunbathing chairs on the stern deck long after dark, trays of food balanced on their bellies. Now she's lucky if she can finish half a plate of food, delicious or no.
"Are you feeling okay?"
"I feel fine," Toph answers, knowing that for the last ten minutes he's been watching her poke her diced meat along the edge of her dish.
"You're not eating much."
"I'm not hungry."
"You should be, though—we haven't eaten since breakfast."
She shrugs one shoulder up and down. "Well I'm not. Sorry to disappoint you."
"I accept your apology," he says hotly. "Though, for the record, you could use a second helping. At this rate, you'll be so skinny that even your grandson's going to be able to beat you in—yikes!"
He fails to dodge Toph's fist as it comes hurdling across the table, and spends the next five minutes wincing and cursing.
One year melts seamlessly into another. The empty seat at Sokka's Pai Sho board becomes coated in a layer of dust. Toph wipes it clean and consents to play only when she feels Sokka growing restless, when his last hope of training Little Lotus Blossoms has shrunk and faded like a healing wound. She knows she'll never win a game in her life, but she doesn't mind. The familiar motion and the clack of polished tiles against wood make him happy, and so she is happy.
The seasons change, the news grows ever more grim, and Toph and Sokka can do no more but watch from their front porch as, each day, the world grows a bit smaller. Sokka always has something to say, some opinion on the engineering behind Equalist craft, but he and Toph are beginning to accept their place in the universe. The war may press onward, the new Avatar may find her own gang of friends and traverse the world in search of answers, but Toph and Sokka's destinies have intertwined into something much simpler; they've loved and lost, and all their encounters have made them content to enjoy one another's company until their days end.
Toph loved Sokka as a child, and she loves him now. Her feelings are something that Sokka has always reciprocated just a touch off of course, muddled by friendship and Suki and Toph's own husband. Their affection has been through actions, by Sokka pushing to move when Toph longs to stagnate, by something as simple as sparring in the garden until neither of them is strong enough to budge. Though the happiest years of Toph's life are gone, spent with an adoring husband and her worrywart of a daughter, she can secretly acknowledge that she has never stopped loving Sokka. And though Sokka has long since stopped trying to put words to his emotions, Toph can sense it every time he says her name. It's in his posture, in the easy link of their arms whether they're turning in for the night or ambling back from tea at The Jasmine Dragon. He sets a heavy hand on her waist and tucks her into the crook of his arm and she knows.
Aang and Katara lived and died with grace that Toph and Sokka do not possess. They didn't have it in their youth, and they certainly don't have it now. Their whole lives they've tromped through it, right alongside Aang and Katara but never quite with their poise. During the war, Toph and Sokka were thrown together as a side effect of Aang and Katara's natural union. They became The Other Pair, a situation that Toph never minded because, honestly, being in such proximity to a natural phenomenon like Aang and Katara could be unnerving. But even with her deliberately forged distance, Toph didn't need vision to see their power, their potential.
Aang and Katara glowed. They drew strength from one another almost tangibly, yet in a way that scrappy Toph and Sokka didn't understand in their youth—in a way that, years later, she's only just beginning to comprehend. For all their spirituality, Aang and Katara's bond stemmed from something much greater than Aang's role as the Avatar.
But as effortlessly as Aang and Katara lived and loved together, it is with equal ease that Toph and Sokka fill in the gap between then and now. At times, Toph draws back into herself and wonders how she and Sokka can carry on as they do. Where Katara and Aang glowed, Toph and Sokka bide their time by planting in the garden and helping each other walk into town. They don't have grace, despite being swathed in it for so many years. Toph wonders how she could still be here while the others have passed on.
Sokka shares this thought, but it lingers somewhere in the short space between their armchairs. He has always been the one to dwell on the unjust and troubling, but this time he takes it as a sign that they should make the best of the time they've been given. Able-bodied or no, Toph and Sokka are as alive as they were when they scaled great Fire Nation airships and tunneled deep underground. Their pranks are mild-mannered and not as frequently induced by liquor. When they talk, they meander through philosophy and politics, seldom discuss the scars and the circumstances behind them, and feel no need to speak of their love.
For two warriors who have existed as an afterthought pair, this love is not one of necessity, or of one saving the other in the end. For Toph and Sokka, it is simply the next natural course of action.
Tonight is beautiful.
Toph leans back into the padding of her rocking chair and lets her breath simmer into a sigh. The ever-present pain in her joints has calmed with the weather, enough to bite back a cringe as she settles down. The evening has only a first hint of fall's approach, a twinge in the air that keeps the bugs away and brings out the evening strollers. A couple passes by the front walk, arms linked and voices alight with roundabout chatter. They pause in their saunter to offer Toph a wave, which she returns with a nod of her head. Inside, Sokka has poured their evening tea and is arranging their cups on a small platter. Toph counts his footsteps to the front door, measures the length of his sigh as he sets the tray down on the table between them and eases into his creaky chair. In a gesture more habit than afterthought, Sokka reaches under his chair and searches for his sword. It's still there, as always, the blade as strong and sharp under his fingertips as it has been since he was fifteen.
"Think that might be us someday?" says the young boy to his lover, in a hushed and delicate voice that Toph isn't meant to hear.
"If we're lucky, I hope," says the girl in reply.
For just a brief moment, Toph knows those voices and believes that they're all together, the four of them, sharing the intimate space of old age as they were always meant to. And when the voices are gone, they leave a sense of peace that hovers over the front porch.
Toph supposes now that she should have known. That at the very end of it all, no matter the divided paths of their lives, it would end as this. Toph and Sokka perched at the very edge of something unfathomable. Just him and her.
All her life, Toph has known that she would witness the end of the world—her universe, as she had grown up and into it, as she had shaped it. Sokka takes her hand, and Toph rocks in her chair and smiles and thinks, 'But not alone; never alone.'
"What greater thing is there for human souls than to feel that they are joined for life—to be with each other in silent, unspeakable memories?" - George Eliot